Mapping agency blocks access, postpones outsourcing pact

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency blocked access to a wide range of its publicly available maps last week while officials reviewed the maps to make sure they did not contain information that could jeopardize national security. NIMA issued the unprecedented freeze last Wednesday as a security precaution in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to NIMA spokeswoman Joan Mears. The order prohibited agencies from selling or making accessible for copy all NIMA topographic maps. While most of these maps are now available to the public, maps of U.S. military installations and more detailed maps of the United States remain off-limits for security reasons, according to Mears. "It's not the intent to bog things down," she said. "[These maps] are being held back because of force protection considerations." Created in 1996, NIMA handles mapping and imaging services for the Defense Department and intelligence agencies. The majority of NIMA products are classified, but NIMA allows other agencies to make some maps and satellite images available to the public. Last week, NIMA directed the U.S. Geological Survey and the Federal Aviation Administration to halt sales of all NIMA-made topographic maps and ordered the Library of Congress and National Archives and Records Administration to deny public access to such maps, Mears said. The sales restriction extended to private firms that are licensed to sell NIMA products. NIMA's nautical and aeronautical maps, which are used for ship and air navigation, were not part of the review and are still available to the public, according to Mears. The Library of Congress quickly obtained a waiver to the NIMA freeze so it could continue providing access to topographic maps of Vietnam, a popular collectors' item among Vietnam veterans, according to Library officials and Ken Lee, CEO of Eastview Cartographic, a private firm that sells some NIMA products. One intelligence expert questioned the wisdom of the freeze, noting that since NIMA is not the only source of map information, restricting access to NIMA maps will not improve security. "At www.mapquest.com, if you type in the address of any military headquarters, you can get the map and a beautiful aerial image of the headquarters and the surrounding area," said Robert David Steele, CEO of Open Source Solutions, a Virginia-based intelligence consulting firm. "Censorship of open source [information] is not the answer." The terrorist strikes also prompted NIMA to postpone outsourcing 600 information technology and services jobs to a joint venture of two Alaskan Native-owned corporations. NIMA now plans to award a final contract for the joint venture in December.
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